Category Archives: Pascal Garnier

Words of Wisdom*

You might not think of crime novels as sources for ‘words of wisdom.’ But they can be. In fact, there’s a surprising amount of everyday wisdom in lots of crime novels. Sometimes, those gems come from the sleuth; sometimes they don’t. Either way, though, you can learn some interesting lessons when you read in the genre.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing in response to a letter from Miss Emily Arundell, who lived there. She wasn’t specific in her letter, but referred to a delicate matter on which she wanted to consult Poirot. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. At first, it’s put down to liver failure. But Poirot is not convinced, and he decides to look into the matter. One of the people he and Hastings consult is Miss Caroline Peabody, who’s known the Arundell family for a very long time. She tells the two men about Miss Arundell’s sisters, saying that one of them had ‘a face like a scone.’ Here’s what she says next:
 

‘There’s something to be said for marrying a plain woman; you know the worst at once and she’s not so likely to be flighty.’
 

Now, admittedly, that might be seen as a dated way to think about a woman’s value. But it does hint at the importance of character as opposed to outward appearance. And it’s an interesting perspective on the times.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has learned some important lessons in his time first as a police officer, and now as a private investigator. And, although Block’s novels aren’t necessarily what you’d call philosophical, they do offer some of Scudder’s hard-won wisdom. In The Sins of the Fathers, for instance, successful business executive Cale Hanniford hires Scudder to find out about the death of his daughter, Wendy. There seems no doubt that she was murdered by her roommate, Richard Vanderpoel. In fact, the case has already been closed. But Hanniford had been estranged from his daughter, and he wants to know more about the person she had become. Scudder agrees to find out what he can, and he starts asking questions. He slowly traces Wendy’s last weeks and months and learns more about her. And, in the end, he finds out the truth about her death, too. At one point, here is what he says about getting information:
 

‘You have to know when to stop. You can never find out everything, but you can almost always find out more than you already know, and there is a point at which any additional data you discover is irrelevant and any time you spend on it wasted.’
 

It’s not easy to know where the right stopping point is, but it’s interesting to consider that there is one.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger is the story of Fabien Delorme. When he is informed that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash, he is, of course, sad at her loss. But their marriage hadn’t been a good one for some time. What upsets him even more is that she was with someone else at the time of the crash. Her lover, Martial Arnoult, also died, and Delorme learns that he left a widow, Martine. Delorme finds out more about her, and slowly becomes obsessed. That obsession draws both of them into a spiral of events, and the end result is real tragedy. At one point, Delorme reflects on their marriage, and how happy they were at first. In fact, he thinks that they were so happily wrapped up in each other at that time, that their friends started avoiding them:
 

‘Everyone knows that excessive happiness is as off-putting as excessive misfortune.’ 
 

That’s a very cynical point of view, of course, but there’s a grain of wisdom in there about constant cheerfulness without the acknowledgement that misfortune happens, too.

One of Kerry Greenwood’s sleuths is Melbourne-based baker, Corinna Chapman. At one point, she was an accountant. But she has discovered that baking, especially breads, is her passion. In Trick or Treat, though, she is in great danger of losing the bakery. In one of the plot threads of that novel, some of the local supply of flour has become poisoned with ergot. In fact, there’s already been an ergot-related death. Now, all of the bakeries have to be temporarily closed until they can be shown to be ergot-free. There are other plot threads, too, that threaten Chapman’s, and the bakery’s, peaceful existence. When the danger is past, here’s what Chapman thinks about it:
 

‘I had come very near to losing all the things I valued and I valued them more now that I knew how very much I would miss them.’
 

It certainly offers a perspective on the things we hold dear.

And then there’s the list of Solomon’s Laws. They are the creation of Paul Levine’s Steve Solomon, a Coconut Grove (Florida) lawyer. He’s not afraid to push the limits of what’s accepted in the courtroom, and some judges do get annoyed at his antics. But he is completely dedicated and tireless when it comes to defending his clients. And he’s good at what he does. He’s developed a series of laws that guide the way he lives. Here are a few of them:
 

When the law doesn’t work…work the law
In law and in life, sometimes you have to wing it.
I will never compromise my ideals to achieve someone else’s definition of success.
Lie to your priest, your spouse, and the IRS, but always tell your lawyer the truth.
We all hold the keys to our own jails.
 

The novels have a lot of wit in them. Still, there is some real wisdom in some of these laws.

And that’s part of what makes crime fiction such an interesting genre. Yes, there are characters, plots, and so on. But there’s also a lot of wisdom. Who’d’a thunk?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Christopher Cross.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Pascal Garnier, Paul Levine

More Than We Bargained For*

Most of us, if asked, would say that we wouldn’t commit a crime, or abet one. And, yet, sometimes people do get drawn into a crime plot, even if they aren’t aware at first of what’s happening. It might something as simple as dropping off a package for an acquaintance, but even something that innocuous can lead to a crime.

The reality that one’s abetted a crime, however unwittingly, can hit hard. And that can add a great deal to a crime novel. Different people behave differently under those circumstances, which can add layers to a character. There’s also the tension and suspense involved as the sleuth gets closer to finding out what really happened.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, a French moneylender, Marie Morisot, is poisoned during a flight from Paris to London. The only possible suspects are the other passengers on the same flight. Hercule Poirot is one of those passengers, and he works with Chief Inspector Japp to find the killer. In the course of the investigation, Poirot learns that the victim went to London frequently, but usually took a different flight. At first, the airline representative says that the usual flight was fully booked. But Poirot has found out that’s not true. He pushes the matter and the representative finally admits that he was paid to say the flight was booked. He’s terrified to say so at first, because he hadn’t known there would be a murder. But he tells the truth and gives Poirot some useful information.

Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance begins as Nero Wolfe gets a new client, Maria Maffei. She’s worried because her brother Carlo has gone missing. On the surface, it looks as though he stole some money and returned to the family’s home in Italy. But Maria is sure that Carlo wouldn’t do such a thing. Wolfe agrees to look into the matter, and it’s not long before Carlo is found stabbed to death. A newspaper clipping in his possession suggests a link between his death and the death of Holland University President Peter Barstow. It seems that Barstow was killed on a golf course by what turns out to be poison. It was delivered through a specially-constructed golf club that Maffei designed. He himself hadn’t known it was going to be used for murder; and, when he found out, the killer had to silence him.

In Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain, we meet twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. He’s a bit bored with life in his small town, and restless to do something. One day, he happens to meet Simon Marechall, and the two get to talking. Marechall discovers that Ferrand has a driving license, which is exactly what he needs. Marechall is a contract killer who’s getting ready to retire from the business, but he wants to do one last job. For that, he needs someone to drive him to the French Coast. So, without telling Ferrand his business, Marechall asks his new acquaintance to do the driving. Ferrand isn’t doing anything else with his life, so he agrees. With that choice, he becomes Marechall’s unwitting accomplice. By the time he finds that out, though, it’s too late, and matters soon spin out of control.

In one plot line of Charles Stross’ Rule 34, we are introduced to ex-con Anwar Hussein. Since his release from prison, he’s made a sort of living as an identity thief. Then, through one of his contacts, he gets an opportunity to ‘go legit.’ It seems that the newly-formed Central Asian nation of Issyk-Kulistan has decided to set up a consul in Edinburgh, and they want Hussein to fill the post. The work is very easy, the pay is decent, and, best of all, it’s work of which Hussein’s wife will approve. He takes the job; and, at first, all goes well enough. But soon, he starts to wonder about some of the things that are happening at this consul. And by the time he discovers what’s going on, he’s already drawn into a situation from which he can’t really extricate himself. It turns out that Hussein’s story is linked to several murders – murders he didn’t know about and wouldn’t have agreed to if he had.

And then there’s Jen Shieff’s The Gentlemen’s Club, which takes place in 1950s Auckland. A ship has arrived in Auckland, bringing several passengers whose stories become a part of the plot. One of those passengers is Fenella Grayson. She has with her three orphan girls, who are to be placed in Brodie House, an orphanage run by a man named Lindsay Pitcaithly. The girls are duly taken to their destination, and Fenella begins looking for work. Her mother, Rachel, is from Auckland, so she already has some contacts. She ends up working in the Grand Palais, a ‘gentlemen’s club’ that offers ‘extra services’ for those willing to pay. And that’s how she gets involved with the club’s owner, Rita Saunders. Little by little, Rita learns that something terrible is going on at Brodie House, and that Pitcaithly isn’t the person he seems to be. But he is powerful, and it’s not going to be easy to prove what’s happening. In the meantime, Fenella finds that she’s been more drawn into the situation than she thought. Now, she’ll have to make some choices about what to do.

Plenty of fictional characters knowingly – even willingly at times – get involved in crime. But there are also characters who didn’t bargain for crime, especially a crime such as murder. And it’s interesting to see how authors handle those characters.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Jon Bon Jovi.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Charles Stross, Jen Shieff, Pascal Garnier, Rex Stout

Sometimes It’s Better Not to Know*

If you’re a crime fiction fan, chances are good that you’re curious, and that you want answers. And that’s quite natural. Most humans have a certain amount of curiosity, and that serves us well. But, are there times when, as the saying goes, ignorance is bliss? Are there some things we’re better off not knowing?

It’s interesting to see how crime fiction treats that question. On the one hand, the genre is all about finding out answers and getting to the truth. On the other, sometimes that truth is so difficult that it really might be better not to know.

Agatha Christie address this question in several of her stories. For instance, in the short story Dead Man’s Mirror, Gervase Chevenix-Gore summons Hercule Poirot to his family home to help him deal with a delicate matter. Poirot is, as you can imagine, not exactly delighted with such treatment, but he is intrigued. So, he travels to Chevenix-Gore’s home. Shortly after he arrives, everyone gathers for dinner. But, by then, Chevenix-Gore is dead – shot in his study. On the surface, it looks very much like suicide. But there is good reason to believe that he would not have committed suicide. And Poirot soon finds evidence to suggest that he was murdered. As he slowly gets to the truth of the matter, Poirot discovers that there are several secrets perhaps best left alone. In fact, he leaves one of them alone himself.

Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die begins as mystery writer Frank Cairnes writes in his journal,
 

‘I am going to kill a man.’
 

He’s being perfectly literal, too. Six months ago, Cairnes’ beloved son, Martin ‘Martie’ died in a tragic hit-and-run incident. Devastated with grief, Cairnes has determined that he will find and kill the man responsible. So, he moves back to the town where he and Martie lived at the time of the tragedy and starts doing a little detective work. Before long, he establishes that the person who was driving the car that killed Martie was a man named George Rattery. Soon afterwards, he finds an ‘in’ to Rattery’s company, and gets an invitation for a visit. His plan is to take Rattery out on a boat and drown him. But Rattery has found Cairnes’ diary. He says that if anything happens to him, the police will get the diary, and Cairnes will be caught. For Cairnes’ part, he says that if the police get the diary, then they’ll know about Rattery’s role in Martie’s death. At a stalemate, the two men head back to shore. Later that day, Rattery dies of what turns out to be poison. Cairnes says that he is innocent. After all, why would he plan to poison a man whom he’d already been going to drown? And he asks poet and PI Nigel Strangeways to help clear his name. As the story goes on, it’s an interesting question whether it would have been better if Cairnes had never found out who the driver of that car was.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband, Henrik, have what seems like the perfect suburban life. Then, Eva discovers that Henrik has been unfaithful. Many people would argue that she has a right to know that. But for her, the news is truly devastating. She is determined that she will find out who the other woman is, and that decision spells disaster. When she learns who Henrik’s lover is, Eva plans revenge, but things don’t work out the way she wants. Gradually, things spin out of control in a way that they likely wouldn’t have if she’d never learned who the other woman was.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger begins as Fabien Delorme discovers that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash. He feels the loss, but their marriage had faded, so he doesn’t feel a really deep grief. Then, he is told that she wasn’t alone in the car. Apparently, she had a lover who also died in the crash. This upsets Delorme more than does the fact that Sylvie died, and he wants to know who this other man was. The police aren’t willing to tell him, but he finds out that the man’s name was Martial Arnoult, and that he left a widow, Martine. Delorme becomes obsessed with finding out more about her, and before he knows it, he’s caught in a web that spins out of control. Admittedly, if he hadn’t found out the name of Sylvie’s lover, it wouldn’t make for much of a story. But it’s hard not to think he would have been better off not knowing…

And then there’s Mick Herron’s Down Cemetery Road. Sarah Tucker and her husband, Mark, are entertaining some guests one evening when an explosion destroys a house not far from theirs. At first, it’s believed to be a gas main. But Sarah has questions about that. For one thing, the owners of the house, Thomas and Maddie Singleton, who were killed in the explosion, left a four-year-old daughter, Dinah. There’s been no sign of the child, and no evidence that she was hurt or killed. So, what’s happened to her? Sarah soon finds out, too, that Thomas Singleton had been listed as killed four years earlier in a military accident. So, why was he present on the night of the explosion? Sarah is especially concerned about Dinah, so she starts to ask questions. And the more she finds out, the more danger there is for her. In the end, Sarah learns some dark, ugly truths, as this case is far more than a tragic gas main accident. Some of that knowledge is very dangerous, too – enough to make one wonder just how much good it did her to learn what she learned.

And that’s the thing about curiosity. It’s a natural part of human thinking. But sometimes, you can’t help wondering whether some things are better left unknown…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pale Divine’s The Fog.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Alvtegen, Mick Herron, Nicholas Blake, Pascal Garnier

What’s So Wrong With Happy Endings?*

The thing about crime stories is that they involve, well, crime. Often (not always) that crime is murder. So, crime fiction fans don’t expect things to go smoothly and happily in the books they read. And, in many ways, if a story is too smooth and happy, it’s not realistic. Stories like that are often not as absorbing, either (if there is no conflict – nothing that’s a problem – what’s the point of suspense going to be?).

At the same time, many crime fiction fans want their stories to be optimistic. The ‘bad guy’ is led away to face justice. Or, the murder victim was a cruel, mean character whom no-one much will miss. And, even when the story is a lot more complex than that, readers often want there to be a sense of positivity (i.e. life will go on, and things will be all right, even good). And there are many crime novels where we see that sort of optimism.

In several (certainly not all) of Agatha Christie’s stories, for instance, there’s a sense that things will be all right, even as there’s an acknowledgement that a death has caused a lot of pain. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling murder of famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. She and her family were staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay when she was killed, and several people who are staying at the same hotel are potential suspects. Poirot works with the police to find out who the real killer is. At the end, the killer is brought to justice, and we get the sense that all will be well in the lives of those who were mixed up in the investigation.

Jill McGown’s A Perfect Match introduces Detective Inspector David Lloyd, and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill of Stansfield CID. They’re called in to investigate when the body of Julia Mitchell is discovered in Thorpe Wood, near the town. Soon enough, the evidence rules out a rape or robbery gone wrong, so the police begin to look for a more personal motive. At first, they think they have their man in Chris Wade, who had an argument with the victim not long before she was killed, and who has gone missing. But the case proves to be more complicated than that, and will involve untangling a network of relationships, and uncovering several lies people have told. In the end, Lloyd and Hill discover who the real killer is, and that person is led off to face justice. It’s not that this is a ‘jolly, happy murder.’ But there is a sense of things being made right again, if I may put it that way.

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie introduces his sleuth, 11-year-old Flavia De Luce. In the novel, Flavia overhears her father having a loud argument with a visitor one evening. She doesn’t know who the other man is, but he certainly seems to know her father. The next morning, she finds the man’s body in a cucumber patch. Inspector Hewitt happens to like Colonel De Luce and takes no pleasure in arresting him. But the evidence points directly to him as the killer. So, Hewitt has no choice in the matter. Still, Flavia is convinced her father is innocent, and is determined to prove it. So, she starts asking questions. In the end, and after more than one dangerous situation, Flavia finds out the truth. Bradley doesn’t make light of the danger, nor of how scary it is to have one’s parent accused of murder. But the ending is optimistic, and we get the sense that things will be all right.

Of course. not everyone wants an optimistic ending to a crime story. Some readers prefer very bleak outcomes. And many novels have that sort of pessimism. James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is like that, for instance. Insurance representative Walter Huff goes to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, hoping to get a policy renewal. Nirdlinger isn’t at home when Huff stops by, but his wife, Phyllis is. Huff finds himself attracted to her right away, and the feeling seems to be mutual. They soon start an affair, and before long, Phyllis tells him of her plan to kill her husband. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he goes along with the plan, even to the point of writing the double-indemnity life insurance policy she has in mind. The murder is duly committed, but that’s just the beginning of Huff’s troubles. This isn’t a story that ends well, or that makes anything all right again. In fact, it’s a bleak ending.

So is the ending to Beryl Bainbridge’s Harriet Said. That novel’s focus is a small Lancashire town and an unnamed thirteen-year-old narrator who lives there. As the story begins, she’s waiting for her fourteen-year-old friend, Harriet, to return from a trip to Wales. In the meantime, she meets middle-aged-and-unhappily-married Peter Biggs. She feels an attraction to him but is unwilling to do anything about it until her friend comes back. What Harriet does return, she wants the narrator to avoid any emotional involvement, but rather, to see this as a sort of observation experience. Then the two girls hatch a plan to, as Harriet puts it, humble Biggs. The girls begin to carry out their plan, but everything falls apart when they see something they weren’t meant to see. Things soon spin out of control, and it all ends in horrible tragedy. This one certainly doesn’t have an optimistic ending.

And neither does Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger. Fabien Delorme learns that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash. The marriage wasn’t really a happy one, so although Delorme will miss her, he’s not torn apart the way he might have been if they’d been a loving couple. The thing that does truly upset him is that Sylvie wasn’t alone in the car. She’d been having an affair with a man named Martial Arnoult, who was also killed in the crash. When Delorme learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine, he becomes obsessed with her. He even follows her when she takes a trip to Majorca. The two begin a relationship, but it soon spins very, very badly out of control. And the end solves nothing and makes nothing all right again.

And that’s how some people like their crime fiction. Others prefer crime fiction to be more optimistic, and to suggest that the world will come back together. Where do you stand on this question? Do you like optimism in your crime novels? Pessimism? If you’re a writer, what sort of novel do you prefer to write?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from A.R. Rahman and Don Black’s Happy Endings.

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Filed under Agatha Raisin, Alan Bradley, Beryl Bainbridge, James M. Cain, Jill McGown, Pascal Garnier

We Were Just Young and Restless and Bored*

Have you ever gotten so busy that you almost wish you could be bored? You might even think what a luxury it is to have enough time for boredom. But, before you get too envious of those who are bored, keep in mind that it has its own challenges.

If you look at crime fiction, you see all sorts of negative consequences that come from being bored. Boredom, especially among young people, can get one into serious trouble. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean. I know you’ll think of lots more than I could.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, we are introduced to two young men, Andreas Winthur and Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. They are best friends; in fact, you could say that they’re each other’s only real friend. They are also bored with life, and without much purpose. Their search for something to do gets them into trouble more than once. And, on one fateful day, it has terrible consequences. Andreas and Zipp spend the day together. Later, Andreas disappears. His mother, Runi, is worried about him, so she goes to the police. At first, Inspector Konrad Sejer isn’t overly concerned. After all, Andreas isn’t a young child. But when more time goes by, and he hasn’t returned, Sejer and his assistant, Jacob Skarre, start investigating. Naturally, one of their first interviewees is Zipp. But he’s not much help. Zipp says he and Andreas parted company before Andreas disappeared. Sejer is sure that Zipp knows more than he’s telling, but it’s not going to be easy to find out the truth.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls is the story of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. In 1978, she gets permission to spend some of the summer at the home of her Aunt Barbara and Uncle Doug Griffin, near Sydney. Angela, her cousin, Mick, and Mick’s friends, are a little bored, with no school, no sport contests, and so on. So, they spend a lot of time playing pinball at a local drugstore. One day, the group goes to the drugstore as usual, but Angela doesn’t come back. She is later found dead, with a scarf over her head. The police investigate, and they focus their attention on Mick and his friends, but they can’t find any evidence of wrongdoing. Then, a few months later, another young girl is found dead, again with a scarf around her head. The theory now is that someone is targeting young girls, and people do worry. The press even dubs the killer, the ‘Sydney Strangler.’ No more killings are reported, though, and the murders are never solved. Years later, filmmaker Erin Fury decides to do a documentary on families who’ve lost a loved one to murder, and she approaches the Griffin family. They eventually agree to be interviewed, and we slowly learn what really happened to Angela.

In Pascal Garnier’s How’s the Pain?, we meet twenty-one-year-old Bernard Ferrand. There’s not much for him in the small town in which he lives, and he’s bored and restless. Then, he meets professional assassin Simon Marechall. And it turns out that he’s got something Marechall needs: a driver license. Marechall needs a driver to take him to Cap d’Agde, on the French coast, where he wants to do one more job before he retires. Bernard isn’t doing anything else with his life, and he is bored. So, he agrees to serve as driver, and the two plan their trip. But Bernard doesn’t know what his new boss does for a living. By the time he finds out, it’s too late, and things start to spin out of control.

Of course, it’s not just young people who get bored with their lives. In Ian Rankin’s Doors Open, for example, wealthy Mike Mackenzie has gotten bored with his life, and he’s looking for some excitement. He and his banker friend, Allan Cruikshank, share a love of art. So, together with art professor Gissing, and with help from local gangster Chib Calloway, Mackenzie and Cruikshank devise a plot. They want to rob the National Gallery of Scotland, and replace some of its valuable holdings with forged art. They choose the gallery’s Doors Open day, when the public gets to view the warehouses and other ‘behind the scenes’ places associated with the museum. The robbery goes off as planned, but the group soon learns that there’s more to benefiting from art then just stealing it…

Sometimes, of course, boredom has more positive consequences. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, brings him an unusual problem. Her sister, Mrs. Hubbard, manages a hostel for students where some perplexing things have been happening. Odd things have been disappearing, and there seems no explanation for what’s going on. Here are Poirot’s thoughts on the matter:
 

‘Hercule Poirot was silent for a minute and a half.
Did he wish to embroil himself in the troubles of Miss Lemon’s sister and the passions and grievances of a polyglot Hostel? …
He did not admit to himself that he had been rather bored of late and that the very triviality of the business attracted him.’
 

Poirot agrees to look into the case, and it turns out that this is much more serious than someone stealing things for fun.

As you can see, boredom has all sorts of consequences. Some of them can be positive, as boredom can spur us on to find new ways to be productive. But other times, boredom can lead to disastrous consequences. There are all sorts of examples in crime fiction; which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Night Moves.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Pascal Garnier, Wendy James